Around the streets of downtown Los Angeles' skid row, the San Julian Hotel was known as "buck wild" -- as in anything goes. It was also dubbed "New Jack City," after the popular 1991 film in which a ruthless crime lord converts an entire apartment building into a drug lab.
City officials and community activists shed no tears when a demolition claw began tearing into the 25-room transient hotel late last week. The unassuming two-story wood and stucco structure, its interior partly charred by an April fire, is being leveled to make room for a children's park and playground.
The hotel, on San Julian Street between 5th and 6th streets, long embodied the social ills of an area notorious for its bustling assortment of seedy goings-on, said neighbors and officials.
But its former owners, who also lived there, portrayed a different reality. The hotel, they said, was never a crime magnet and provided needed shelter to people, such as parolees, who were rejected as tenants elsewhere.
"The San Julian has a bad reputation, because we were right in the middle of skid row," said Rick Patel, whose family owned the building for 22 years. "We were in the wrong place."
The site gained notoriety in 1999 when the city declared it and other nearby hotels public nuisances for allowing drugs sales, prostitution, public drunkenness and loitering to proliferate. Police surveillance reports, crime statistics and the declarations of residents provided the evidence.
Remarkably, that was the first such coordinated effort to crack down on businesses in the skid row area, officials said.
Daniel Green, the zoning administrator who made the decision and who is still monitoring the establishments, said this week that the disappearance of the San Julian would not resolve the drug problem on skid row. But "if there's one less temptation ... maybe there's a little less likelihood someone will get hooked," he added.
Los Angeles Police Capt. Jim Rubert said the hotel remained troubled until the end, despite orders to the owners to crack down on criminal activities. He said that perhaps its demolition would awaken a new spirit amid the squalor of skid row.
"Having a park instead of a drug-infested hotel is a positive change," said Rubert, of the LAPD's Central Division, which patrols skid row. "Hopefully, seeing youngsters being affected positively will lift the consciousness of some people."
Officials at the Union Rescue Mission next door said they had already noticed improvements since the hotel closed after the fire in April. The homeless shelter and recovery center, itself a fixture on skid row, bought the San Julian for $700,000 recently.
"The word on the street was that this was a major drug-dealing area," said Scott Johnson, the mission's security manager, of the hotel. "You'd see a lot of high-priced vehicles coming in and out of their parking lot, Escalades, [other] Cadillacs."
Mission officials said they will use the space to expand their facilities and add a much-needed play area after seeing a rising number of women and children using their emergency services.
On a tour of the hotel just before its demolition, Johnson pointed out vestiges of the tattered lives of its tenants -- scattered clothes strewn about the small rooms, an abandoned shoe in a corner, umbrellas, bags, blankets, a pair of crutches. Also visible were half a smoked marijuana cigarette and drug paraphernalia such as straws, glass plates, razor blades and tiny plastic reclosable pouches -- nickel and dime bags -- commonly used to hawk drugs on the street.
Upstairs, where the fire broke out, patches of blue sky could be seen through burned-out sections of the roof. A charred compact disc lay on the floor next to a yellow baby rattle, and sunlight illuminated a burned blue and silver necklace.
In one room Johnson found a metal lockbox with remnants of marijuana. In another were several driver's licenses, checkbooks and Social Security cards -- evidence, perhaps, of someone engaged in identity fraud, he guessed.
On a dresser in one room was a pornographic videotape, a Bible and a brown teddy bear. Some items previously found in the building, like remnants of black tar heroin, were turned over to police, Johnson said.
The hotel was a source of problems for at least 10 years, but complaints were often ignored because it was skid row, contends Zelenne Cardenas, program manager at the United Coalition East Prevention Project, an alcohol and drug prevention program based a few blocks from the hotel on 6th Street.
Bridget Wilson, women's chaplain at the Union Rescue Mission, recalled standing a few years ago on a deck at the mission that overlooked the San Julian when shots rang out. Two bullets from the hotel's windows pinged the deck, and she thought twice about going out there again, she said.
When the April fire broke out, Wilson helped clothe and comfort a woman who had jumped "buck naked" from a second-floor window to escape.
"She worked for the drug lords that lived there, but she would come to the mission to get a shower or clothes," added Wilson, who said the woman was limping but not seriously injured after her leap. "She said she was smoking crack and was high, and that by the time she woke up, all she could do was to jump."
A skid row regular who gave his name as Cyclo said he stayed at the San Julian on and off for 30 years and was around a few years ago when a shootout in and near the hotel -- a turf battle over drugs, he says -- brought activity in the surrounding community to a standstill.
A 53-year-old Vietnam vet, he said he was also around when a woman -- high on crack cocaine -- jumped from a second-floor room and broke both kneecaps. She later committed suicide by hanging herself at another hotel, he added.
He was staying in the hotel, he said, when fire broke out that morning in April, scorching several of the upstairs rooms and causing the last tenants to flee for good.
The incident report said the cause was a cigarette that ignited a plastic-coated mattress and pillow. Others insisted that it was either a lighted crack pipe or spilled liquor that caught fire.
But although drugs might have been kept in the rooms, business was transacted on the streets outside, not in the hotel itself, Cyclo insisted.
"You had people coming from all over, the business people from Bunker Hill, the people living in the new lofts, but people couldn't come up inside," he said. "We had a family: It was people who knew one another and protected one another."
The drugs will still flow in the neighborhood after the San Julian is gone, Cyclo predicted.
Frank A. Weiser, an attorney who represented the San Julian, said that its previous owners and other businesses were blamed for myriad ills in skid row over which they had little control. He contends that some of the rules imposed by the city on the San Julian -- such as having new tenants fingerprinted for identification -- were unconstitutional.
"There was no substantial evidence of crime," he said. "Apparently the advocacy groups have had it out for the hotels for several years."
Rick Patel, 30, who helped his family run the hotel for a few years before it was sold, said the neighborhood was "bad, but it wasn't like people were walking around with guns. It was just homeless people looking for a place to stay."
The family identified with the plight of many in the community, he said.
"We felt like we were providing a service. A lot of places wouldn't rent to people if they had just got out of jail or if they weren't in a drug rehab program. We were the only alternative for a lot of them."
Patel said the standard monthly room rate was $260 to $300. The nightly rate was $24, but he said such overnight stays were infrequent. Some of the tenants had lived there for 15 years, he said.
Patel, his mother -- known in the community as Mrs. Mary -- father Victor and a younger brother lived in the first-floor apartment that was patched together from six or seven rooms. Patel went to schools in the area and remembers playing in the parking lot. When he married a few years ago, his wife, Reena, joined them.
"We lived there and wouldn't have put our own family in danger," he said.
His mother agreed.
"Never inside was there a problem," Mary Patel said. "Never crime, not in my building. I was very strict with people, and my building was clean. Never health department, never Building and Safety, never in my life."
Rick Patel said they never saw evidence of drug dealing inside and that if such debris was found later, it was probably left over from squatters who inhabited the vacant hotel after the fire.
The family now lives in an apartment at another hotel it owns near Koreatown. But Rick and Reena say they miss their former neighborhood.
"We made a lot of friends over the years," Rick said. "After living there for 22 years, it was home."